Félicette was a cat weighing about 2 and a half pounds, and she spent most of her life on the streets of Paris. Prior to joining the ranks of the 14 selected and trained “space cats” by French scientists, Félicette was a healthy stray cat.
In 1963, Félicette overcame challenges that no other feline had accomplished before. She was chosen for her calm demeanor and suitability for the space mission, with a balanced and gentle physique. In October of that year, Félicette was placed aboard a rocket, preparing for her historic journey.
Unlike the tragic fate of previous experimental animals, Félicette, although experiencing a dizzying period during the spaceflight, safely returned to Earth.
However, while other animals like the dog Laika or the chimpanzee Ham were celebrated and well-known for their ventures into space, it seems that the stray cat had to endure injustices and was soon forgotten by history.
By the 1960s, as the “Space Race” heated up, while the United States and the Soviet Union achieved certain advancements and milestones, the French realized their shortcomings in the space program. They initially planned to use mice for the early spaceflight experiments. However, it lacked the same impact as the Soviet Union’s spaceflight with Laika the dog in 1957 or the United States’ Ham the chimpanzee in 1961.
Furthermore, the goal of sending animals into space during this era was to understand how spaceflight could affect human psychology. Therefore, mice didn’t provide scientists with deep insights. As a result, French scientists shifted their attention to another animal, the cat.
Michel Viso, a former veterinarian and head of the Exobiology department at France’s National Center for Space Studies, explained the reason behind this choice: “Cats were widely used for neurophysiological studies at that time.”
In other words, selecting an animal species that scientists already had a good understanding of through previous research was the most appropriate and optimal choice. To pursue their new objective, scientists at the Center for Teaching and Research in Aerospace Medicine (CERMA) purchased and selected 14 female cats, initiating their training to become “astronauts.”
Among these 14 cats, one particular cat stood out, identified as “C 341,” and later became known as Félicette. Félicette and the other 13 cats underwent a rigorous screening process to observe their reactions to the spaceflight. They had to endure tests involving adaptation to the weightless environment, exposure to loud rocket noises, stimulation of brain electrodes, and even centrifuge sessions that could cause abdominal pain for several months in humans.
Out of all the selected cats, Félicette, after successfully passing numerous tests, became one of the six candidates for space travel. Ultimately, scientists chose Félicette as the sole cat to be sent into space in this program because she could maintain her weight. The other cats in the program had gained weight. Most importantly, Félicette possessed an extremely calm and balanced demeanor. “Félicette was a cat suited for this job,” one of the CERMA scientists later explained. “Any signs of fear detected would have led to her exclusion from the program as it would have disrupted her brain signals and made them unreadable.”
At 8:09 a.m. on October 18, 1963, at Hammaguir, Algeria, Félicette officially became the first cat to venture into outer space. She was placed inside a specially designed capsule, mounted on the Véronique AG1 rocket, and launched into space at a speed five to six times the speed of sound.
Viso explained, “The rocket ascended to an altitude of nearly 157 kilometers. After a 15-minute journey outside of Earth, the capsule was detached, deployed a parachute, and safely landed back on Earth, becoming a heroine of France.” The media affectionately dubbed this space-faring cat as the “Astrocat,” inspired by a famous cartoon. However, Félicette’s subsequent days did not receive the glory one would expect for such a daring creature.
The glorious moment of Félicette was short-lived. Prior to the flight, Félicette’s brain was equipped with an electrode, and upon her return to Earth, scientists used it to study the impact of the microgravity environment on the nervous system. Félicette’s brain suddenly became a valuable research asset. Surrendering her brain (involuntarily) to medicine became Félicette’s.
According to Robert Pearlman, a space historian and editor of the SPACE space history website, “I think this forgetting may be a historical issue. The effort to send humans into space, and ultimately to the Moon, was essentially a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Since France had never sent humans into space – later they collaborated with the European Space Agency – their initial achievements were relatively overshadowed compared to those of Russia and the United States. Consequently, Félicette’s story could easily be forgotten.
Even the French themselves had forgotten about this cat’s presence, as evidenced by an incident in 1997 when a stamp was released to honor Félicette’s spaceflight, but she was described as a male cat named Félix. However, things started to change in 2017 when a London man named Matthew Serge Guy launched a campaign to build a bronze memorial to honor “Astrocat.”
“For the past 54 years, the story of the first and only cat to go into space has been forgotten. But that cat truly deserves to be known and remembered,” Matthew wrote.
“While other animals that went into space, such as Laika the dog and Ham the chimpanzee, are famous in popular culture and have lasting commemorative images, very few people know that a cat has also been sent into space and safely returned to Earth. Now it is time for ‘Astrocat’ to have the memorial she deserves.”
Guy’s campaign was successful. He raised over $57,000 to create a statue for Félicette, which is now installed at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Subsequently, the University of Toulouse III also announced that they will name an upcoming observatory after Félicette. The observatory is expected to open in 2023, using Astrocat as its emblem.
Thus, Félicette finally receives the recognition she deserves. Its contribution to space travel may be small – and certainly involuntary – but it is nonetheless a historic milestone.